“It’s a great story but it needs some truth to it,” Letta Mbulu said during a July 2017 interview with 702’s Pippa Hudson of her experience as a 19-year-old member of the legendary original cast of the “all-African jazz opera” King Kong: Legend of a Boxer.
I’m just going to go right ahead and say it: the 2017 revival is a mess. Perhaps not as messy as the 1979 reboot, which Marianne Thamm, in her January 2017 article for the Daily Maverick, described as a “two-day disaster”.
Pat Williams, the original King Kong lyricist and author of the first draft of Harry Bloom’s (father of Orlando Bloom of Lord of the Rings fame) King Kong – The African Jazz Opera, is just as disparaging of the 1979 version, calling it an “unmitigated disaster”.
Which explains why the various rights-holders of the different components of the production took 20 years finally to yield the rights to the man responsible for the 2017 version: South African-born, British-based theatre producer Eric Abraham. They probably should have held out for another 20 years and saved us all the agony of watching a prized piece of our heritage get the kind of treatment it has had from the Fugard Theatre production team.
I don’t think it’s necessary to have had the experience of the 1959 original to be able to appreciate/disparage this latest incarnation. I’m sure the original was superlatively superb — for its time. After all, it did launch the illustrious international careers of the likes of Mbulu and every other South African musical legend of the 1950s.
Admittedly, there are some redeeming qualities to the 2017 production. The authentically South African jazz sounds of Todd Matshikiza’s compositions are timeless and are flawlessly rendered by the cast, with the chorus line delivering harmonies that prickle the skin, threatening to cover your entire body in permanent gooseflesh.
Nondumiso Tembe — “the new Miriam Makeba” — as Joyce really flexes her Yale and Oxford University theatre training with her languid movements, and her costumes are absolutely to die for. Lerato Mvelase as Petal steals the show with her delicious vocals. (Someone please convince her to record an album, the world needs it.)
Gregory Maqoma’s choreography shines as it always does. For a few minutes here and there he makes the otherwise rigid-looking set and the somewhat dowdy costumes of the ensemble cast members seem a little magical.
The boxing ring scenes are marvellous. Sne Dladla gives an over-the-top portrayal of a ring announcer channeling the posture and personal style of Napoleon Dynamite. Rushney Ferguson serves up a scene-stealing cheeky ring girl act that draws you in just in time for the Matrix-like flow-motion of the actual fight.
But these are overshadowed by the more cringeworthy aspects of the show, which is overly long. So long as to feel like three acts instead of two, particularly during an inexplicable scene in the “third act” when suddenly new information is being introduced and peripheral loose ends are tied up in a paradoxically hurried but drawn out manner.
The dialogue, unlike the music, has not aged well and, consequently, neither has the story. Stilted and improbable, the parts of the show that aren’t sung make it increasingly difficult to suspend one’s disbelief with each passing minute.
Andile Gumbi as King Kong is painful to observe — more gorilla, less grace in his overall delivery. Everything about him seems to scream “look at me I’m doing the acting — do you not enjoy my acting?” It’s all so uncomfortably awkward.
It is only when the three female leads — Tembe (Joyce), Mvelase (Petal), Ntambo Rapatla (Miriam) — sing The Earth Turns Over that I actually begin to see the women characters in the show as whole beings and not mere appendages to the leading men. It is a eureka moment that seems to have escaped everyone on the production team.
It is understandable that the 2017 creative team wanted to produce an authentic restoration that remains faithful to the spirit of Matshikiza’s inspired work. But, besides his original compositions, very little about this show feels authentic. In short, it simply lacks truth.